Old favourite: Centonove.
Old favourite: Centonove. Photo: Ken Irwin

109 Cotham Road Kew, Victoria 3101

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Opening hours L D Tues-Sat
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Events, Groups, Lunch specials, Long lunch, Private dining, Romance-first date
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef Patrick Fletcher
Seats 80
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9817 6468

Sometimes when I witness other restaurant customers greeted as regulars - swiftly given ''the usual'' and kissed as they leave with a ''see you soon'' - it makes me feel chilly and jealous. But at Centonove, it only makes me want to come back and get my kiss and ''ciao bella'' too. That's because there's love left over for those of us who don't have a regular table. It's also because I really like the food.

Centonove has been a warm beacon on its lonely corner in Kew for 15 years - the past 12 in the hands of restaurateur Jesse Davidson, who doesn't quite have chianti running through his veins but has embraced Italian food and wine with the fervour of a convert.

He's just back from one of many trips to Italy, this time with his chef, Patrick Fletcher, another non-Italian who trained at Centonove and continued his trajectory at Cecconi's. The pair ate their way around northern Italy (and blogged about it at centonove109.com) with a stoicism - ''OK, more vino, if I must'' - that can only be admired.

Centonove's braised rabbit with semolina gnocchi.
Centonove's braised rabbit with semolina gnocchi. Photo: Ken Irwin

Their adventures have fed into the wine list and the menu, anchoring some dishes more firmly in their regions and stripping out extraneous elements in others. They ate rabbit a bit and that's celebrated in a satisfying dish of white wine-braised rabbit falling from the bone into a tasty jus. It's easy to wreck rabbit but this dish does its bit to balance the ledger.

Similarly sustaining is the chilli-spiked pork-rib ragu clinging to house-made tagliatelle. Antipasto platters often feel offhand, but here the selection of the day is presented proudly on a pedestal. My assortment included a tender example of vitello tonnato (poached veal with tuna mayonnaise), top-shelf prosciutto with house-pickled cauliflower, and bresaola (dried beef) with shaved parmesan. A stack of bocconcini, tomato and basil was the centrepiece. Tomatoes aren't great at this time of year but that only served to highlight the milky-smooth cheese.

The service team includes a few young Italians, who add swagger with their swoony accents, but the X-factor isn't just thanks to them: it's the regulars having fun, the top-down sense of professionalism and care, and the fact that everything is imbued with joy. Battle those happy regulars for a table and see for yourself.

Star rating:
3.5 stars out of 5